Sunday, July 06, 2008


Bret Stephens: Mass for Neurotics, or July Fool's Day Essay?

It has been widely noted that fact-checking in mainstream media is in serious decline. So, perhaps it is not surprising that there is none at all for the Wall Street Journal op-eds and editorials, and that outright lies can be written as "facts."

The case in point that inspired this billet:


Global Warming as Mass Neurosis
July 1, 2008; Page A15

Last week marked the 20th anniversary of the mass hysteria phenomenon known as global warming. Much of the science has since been discredited. Now it's time for political scientists, theologians and psychiatrists to weigh in.

What, discredited? Thousands of scientists insist otherwise, none more noisily than NASA's Jim Hansen, who first banged the gong with his June 23, 1988, congressional testimony (delivered with all the modesty of "99% confidence").

But mother nature has opinions of her own. NASA now begrudgingly confirms that the hottest year on record in the continental 48 was not 1998, as previously believed, but 1934, and that six of the 10 hottest years since 1880 antedate 1954.

What NASA says on their web site:

GISS Surface Temperature Analysis
Global Temperature Trends: 2007 Summation

The year 2007 tied for second warmest in the period of instrumental data, behind the record warmth of 2005, in the Goddard Institute for Space Studies (GISS) analysis. 2007 tied 1998, which had leapt a remarkable 0.2°C above the prior record with the help of the "El Niño of the century". The unusual warmth in 2007 is noteworthy because it occurs at a time when solar irradiance is at a minimum and the equatorial Pacific Ocean is in the cool phase of its natural El Niño-La Niña cycle.

Figure 1 shows 2007 temperature anomalies relative to the 1951-1980 base period mean. The global mean temperature anomaly, 0.57°C (about 1°F) warmer than the 1951-1980 mean, continues the strong warming trend of the past thirty years that has been confidently attributed to the effect of increasing human-made greenhouse gases (GHGs) (Hansen et al. 2007). The eight warmest years in the GISS record have all occurred since 1998, and the 14 warmest years in the record have all occurred since 1990.

And, a bit further on in the same page,


The Southern Oscillation and the solar cycle have significant effects on year-to-year global temperature change. Because both of these natural effects were in their cool phases in 2007, the unusual warmth of 2007 is all the more notable. It is apparent that there is no letup in the steep global warming trend of the past 30 years (see 5-year mean curve in Figure 1a).

"Global warming stopped in 1998," has become a recent mantra of those who wish to deny the reality of human-caused global warming. The continued rapid increase of the five-year running mean temperature exposes this assertion as nonsense. In reality, global temperature jumped two standard deviations above the trend line in 1998 because the "El Niño of the century" coincided with the calendar year, but there has been no lessening of the underlying warming trend.

If the man can't understand that, of what interest can his essay be? (Please do go to the NASA report and have a look at the charts.) The attentive reader may have noted that the NASA report cited above deals with global atmospheric temperatures, whereas Mr. Stephens considers one hot year in only 1.6% of the Earth's surface (contiguous 48 states) as discrediting the science; the comparison is a bit face-versus-pimple, so the reader may decide Mr. Stephens's cherry-picked factoid discredits much of the science, and the NASA report does not rescue the discredited science. If so, please leave a comment arguing for further research on Stephens's factoid.

The interest of the rest of his text is in the clues he provides as to the source of his preference for denial. He asserts that The real place where discussions of global warming belong is in the realm of belief, and particularly the motives for belief. This is surely true in his case, and that of other deniers. Which beliefs and motives does he identify as important in this case? What do they reveal about the beliefs he prefers?

The first is as a vehicle of ideological convenience.... its dire warnings about the consequences of industry and consumerism, is equally a rebuke to capitalism. So, denial is motivated by the incompatibility of capitalism, in his understanding of it, with environmental responsibility. Deniers would thus believe that capitalism without pollution and without tragedies of the commons is not real capitalism; responsible, environmentally considerate capitalists would not be real capitalists; capitalism requires ruthlessness and disregard for others and our descendents. They worship their putative right to desecrate the earth to honor the invisible hand. Nobody said ideology was intelligent, did they?

A second explanation is theological....A light carbon footprint has become the 21st-century equivalent of sexual abstinence. Which theology does he have in mind? Surely not the ones that say "go forth an multiply." Not that it matters: one does not have to resort to theology to conclude that it is wrong to poison the earth on which our descendents may live (See Climate Economics by Geoffrey Heal at VoxEU, for instance, or The Case for Mitigating Greenhouse Gas Emissions by Kenneth J. Arrow at Project Syndicate). One just has to understand economics and have some moral sense. Deniers, then, may be so because they don't understand why it may be better to be safe than sorry. Or even to save for a rainy day. If auto insurance were optional, would they buy it? How about health insurance (for themselves, of course!)?

Finally, there is a psychological warming is nature's great comeuppance, affirming as nothing else our guilty conscience for our worldly success.
This one is quite odd with its reference to "comeuppance" as "psychological" rather than "theological." One needn't reach out to a vengeful deity; one can feel guilty for one's own imprudence. One can feel guilty (and anxious) if one drives into the desert past the "last station for 200 miles" with a near-empty tank. Or, in a more relevant example, for spending one's college tuition money on getting hooked on heroin, getting pregnant at the same time. This is not "comeuppance," this is foolish, short-sighted, selfish hedonism's predictable consequences. No resources, insufficient preparation for the future, unsustainable and unhealthy habits (passed on to one's offspring), and growing population. Guilt in those circumstances isn't neurotic, it demonstrates at least some grasp of reality.

Can Mr. Stephens truly not recognize that denial is not "healthy, life-affirming religion"?

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